“A long bad novel is not as good as a good short story.”
- Alistair MacLeod
Recently I sat waiting for a time while something in my car was replaced. A recall of some sort was in order, my friendly-neighbourhood mechanic had pointed out, and so he booked the appointment for me. Alas, I missed it. The appointment was set for two days before the Halifax launch of Harbour View - my mind was on other things and I knew something would slip by me at launch time, but it was a couple of weeks before I realized my error. So I re-booked the recall appointment.
And there I sat, with some yarn and two needles and a book, Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief. There was music in the air, but nothing pleasant; it was shrill and uninteresting, and too much of a distraction to read by, so I spent much of the wait with my needles clicking. While I knat, I wondered how it’s possible in certain areas of my life to feel completely on top of things, and in others I feel so totally, thoroughly, and colossally slow and stupid?
Such as when I’m faced with questions from an auto mechanic.
Mileage? How should I know?
Clunking sound? Beats me.
Registration number? Haven’t the faintest idea.
The recalled part was replaced, and I drove home none the wiser as to what, exactly, had been replaced.
That night I attended a public reading given by Alistair MacLeod. He read from No Great Mischief to a rapt, standing-room-only crowd. What a thrill it was to hear him read the words I’ve read now five times! When he read the last line, “All of us are better when we are loved”, there was a collective sigh, and a Certain Person had to mop herself up with a hanky.
The reading was followed by a question period, good questions for the most part, to which Alistair MacLeod gave thoughtful answers. When asked how he approaches novel-writing as opposed to short story-writing, he pointed out that, to him, writing a short story is intense, rather like running a 100-yard dash. Writing a novel is not as intense; it needs more time and space to emerge. He pointed out that No Great Mischief took him 13 years to write.
I’ve been thinking about the difference between the two as I creep along with my novel, sometimes wishing I’d stuck to short stories or another novella. In a sense they’re more familiar to me; their distilled form is more comfortable. When I had occasion at Writing Camp to discuss my novel manuscript with my mentor, at the end of our session he kindly said he looked forward to reading it when it’s finished. I morosely replied that it might be a while. He fixed me with a twinkly grin.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “It takes me a while to write a novel, too.”